During the Year of Consecrated Life, we wish to highlight some instances of how artists, playwrights, and poets have been inspired by the witness of religious. The arts have thus often become venues for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to reflect on the mystery of men and women who have given their lives “to bear witness to the mercy and tenderness of the Lord.”
Pope Francis has spoken to this effect with these words: “People today certainly need words, but most of all they need us to bear witness to the mercy and tenderness of the Lord which warms the heart, rekindles hope, and attracts people towards the good. What a joy it is to bring God’s consolation to others!” (Homily for Holy Mass with Seminarians and Novices, Rome, 7 July 2013; cited in #8, “Rejoice! A Letter to Consecrated Men and Women”)
National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC
Below is a small sample of art inspired by the consecrated life in the National Gallery. Whether one can visit the museum in our nation’s capital in person or using the links to their extensive web-gallery, these are pieces especially relevant to the Year of Consecrated Life.
Saint Anthony of the Desert (251-356) is generally hailed as the “Father of Monasticism”, not because he was strictly the first monk but rather because he wrote a rule for other hermits who wished to share in his way of holiness. St. Athanasius wrote a Life of St. Anthony which further popularized the radical imitation of Christ through the consecrated life. For these reasons, depictions of the vocation of St. Anthony are commonly found in Medieval and Renaissance art.
In Gallery 3 of the National Gallery (to the right of the West Sculpture Hall), a visitor will find the triptych the vocation of St. Anthony painted by the Master of the Osservanza (Sano di Pietro?) in 1430 / 1435. The panels include three scenes given from Samuel H. Kress Collection:
- “Saint Anthony Distributing His Wealth to the Poor” (1952.5.20);
- “Saint Anthony Leaving His Monastery” (1952.5.21);
- “The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul” (1939.1.293)
A 17th century Spanish polychrome sculpture of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), the great Carmelite reformer and mystic, is currently displayed under natural light at the far end of the Western hall beyond the West Garden Court, between Galleries 28 and 29. The sculpture is attributed to Francisco Antonio Gijón (2003.124.1) and belongs to a genre of delicate hyper-realism which responded to the call of the Council of Trent to artists. Details include raised blood vessels, teeth under his parted lips, and Mount Carmel rising from his open book, the famous Ascent to Mount Carmel, as he looks to Heaven in ecstasy.
The 1729 portrait of Elizabeth Throckmorton (d. 1760) can be found in Gallery 37, alongside other works by the famous portrait painter Nicolas de Largillierre. Previously this portrait titled “Elizabeth Throckmorton, Canoness of the Order of the Dames Augustines Anglaises” (1964.20.1) was displayed according to its date of execution and thus located in Gallery 53 with paintings of Enlightenment France full of new scientific inventions and heavily powdered wigs. (The striking presence of British Catholic nuns in exile juxtaposed with somewhat superficial French scenes was quite captivating!)
Elizabeth Throckmorton belonged to a prominent British Catholic family whose members managed to maintain a notable political presence in England while never compromising their faith. The “Dames Anglaises” (English Ladies) of the Augustinian Canonesses in France had a strong link to the Catholics in the new colony of Maryland who had gone into exile and formed a new home in order to preserve the ancient faith. This sister’s unswerving gaze and sober loveliness both cuts and illuminates the usual style of de Largillierre whose commissioned works were intended to capture the sitter in a flattering manner.
Religious Depicted in Theater and Film
Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957) is an opera by Francis Poulenc, originally in French, which tells the story of the Sixteen Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne who were gave their lives for the faith on the guillotine during the French Revolution. Poulenc’s libretto was an adaptation of a play by Georges Bernanos, which also followed upon an earlier novel Song of the Scaffold by Gertrud von le Fort in 1931. From this last novel was added the fictional character “Blanche de la Force” who is the main protagonist who struggles with courage in the opera version.
The Washington National Opera is currently performing a production of Dialogues of the Carmelites (February 21- March 10) at the Kennedy Center. The sisters of the Juniorate House were granted our request for complimentary tickets and so had the great pleasure of attending a performance. We even were invited back-stage afterwards since the cast wished to meet “real nuns”! (This photo was taken immediately after the final scene so the “actor nuns” are in the prison-wear costumes.)
The Nun (2007; in USA with English subtitles 2010) is a documentary of a Swedish young woman’s vocation to a become a Carmelite. The award-winning film was made by a non-Catholic Swedish film-maker, Maud Nycander, based on her self-admitted “fascination” with the idea of a contemporary young woman entering the cloistered contemplative life. Her interviews with Marta (who becomes Sr. Mary of the Annunciation) and her family span ten years and offer a moving testimony to the mystery of grace and loss for a whole family when a daughter is called to religious life. (NOTE: The preview provided by Ignatius Press is only in Swedish; the actual US DVD does have English subtitles throughout.)
Into Great Silence (2007) was made by German filmmaker Philip Gröning. Without music or commentary, he lets his camera artfully tell the story of the Cathusian monks, among the most austere orders in the Catholic Church founded in the spirit of reform that swept the 11th century. This film is a worthwhile 162 minutes in which the dignity and mystery of the consecrated life emerges to the great surprise (and widespread film awards!) of the modern movie-goer.
Poetry and Unlikely Prose
Wreck of the Deutchland (1875-1876) by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844–1889) was only published posthumously in the 1918 edition of his poems. The long poem includes an explanatory dedication: To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875.
Hopkins was greatly moved by the news of these sisters who died drowning just off the coast of England while being expelled from Germany during the anti-Catholic “Kulturkampf” led by Otto von Bismark to eliminate religious from the country. Scholars even conclude that Hopkins was actually so moved as to break his self-imposed hiatus from poetic composition in order to compose this powerful piece.
Though Gerard Manley Hopkins himself was a religious, his poetry also belongs to the height of Victorian poetry respected and studied in secular academic circles. The poem is widely studied and offers, once again, a window of reflection for Catholics and non-Catholics on the sacrifice and lives of those in consecrated life.
The Eagle and the Dove (1943) is a double biography of both St. Teresa of Avila (the eagle) and St. Therese of the Child Jesus (the dove). It was written during World War II by Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), a secular author known for her poetry and novels as well as for her various associations with other famous authors of the times. The interest and respect shown by a non-Catholic British novelist for these two very different and yet both very great Carmelite nuns is quite remarkable. There is hardly anything else to call it but “unlikely prose” reflecting the consecrate life in the arts.
May this Year of Consecrated Life fulfill its mission to allow the great grace of the consecrated life to illuminate our times, and may religious men and women once again inspire artists, playwrights, poets and novelists to ponder anew what kind of life this must be!
* An additional post of interest in our Catholic Culture section: Via Pulchritudinis: Finding God Through Beauty